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The pillars of the Kingdom are shaking

Image credit: Stephen Downes (Flickr: Creative Commons)

The son also rises

The pillars of the Kingdom are shaking. On 4 November, some 500 Saudi elites were arrested, including 11 princes, by a hastily thrown together anti-corruption committee. The man orchestrating this unprecedented crackdown was Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or ‘MBS’. He claims to have restored upwards of $100 billion to the Saudi treasury, and will raise more through lucrative out-of-court settlements.

MBS’s political trajectory has been meteoric. In January 2015, King Abdullah died. He was succeeded by MBS’s father, the current King Salman, who initially appointed a nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, as crown prince. MBS had to settle for Minister of Defence, Secretary General of the Royal Court, and chairman of the recently formed Council for Economic and Development Affairs, earning him the epithet, ‘Mr Everything’. In June, Nayef was pushed aside, and MBS has since become the Kingdom’s de facto co-monarch, ruling alongside his octogenarian father.

Whatever its stated purpose, the purge also clearly served to consolidate MBS’s authority. Among those arrested were Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, son of the late King Abdullah and once considered a possible contender for the throne, and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the world’s wealthiest men and another potential rival. Moreover, Miteb was relieved of his post as head of the National Guard, as was General Abdullah al-Sultan as commander of the navy, thereby securing MBS’s authority over all branches of the Saudi military.

This is not palace-intrigue as usual. Saudi inheritance has traditionally been agnatic, rather than patrilineal, meaning the throne has passed to the brothers of the deceased king, rather than their respective sons. The last six kings of Saudi Arabia have all been half-brothers by the various wives of the Kingdom’s founder, Ibn Saud. Hence, assuming MBS does succeed, he will not only be Riyadh’s first third-generation monarch, his ascension will signify a blunt concentration of power in the ‘Salman’ branch of the sprawling royal house.

Hydrocarbaholics anonymous

However, the drivers of this upheaval lay far deeper than MBS’s personal ambition. For the last 80 years, Saudi Arabia’s social contract has been underwritten by the fruits of the world’s second-largest proven oil reserves. Perhaps 90% of Riyadh’s budget comes from the state-owned hydrocarbon behemoth, Saudi-Aramco. The profits have bankrolled the profligate lifestyles of the princely elite, provided cradle-to-grave welfare for the Kingdom’s 21 million subjects, and paid out salaries for a workforce where public sector sinecures are the norm.

In 2014, oil prices collapsed. In 2015, Saudi Arabia announced a record budget deficit. By 2016, the Kingdom faced insolvency. Riyadh was left with no choice but to kick its oil-addiction, and undertake the painful process of cutting expenditure and finding ways to generate non-oil revenue.

MBS is spearheading the reform crusade. In April last year, he announced Vision 2030, a comprehensive modernisation program pivoting around a $2 trillion Public Investment Fund, and the construction of a $500 billion high-technology commercial zone called Neom in the Kingdom’s north-eastern extremity. The required capital will be raised by selling 5% of Saudi Aramco, an idea MBS first touted publicly last January in an interview with The Economist. Scheduled to take place next year, it will reportedly be the largest public offering of all time.

Spring from above

MBS has not limited himself to economic reform, however. He believes Islam has been wayward in Kingdom since 1979. In January of that year, Ayatollah Khomeini began proselytising Islamic Revolution to the world. By November, he had succeeded in inspiring an uprising in Saudi’s predominantly Shiite Qatif province. At the same time, Juhayman al-Otabi’s jihadist militia stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca itself. These events constituted traumatic affronts to the religious legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy, both from within and without. Then-King Khaled sought deliverance by empowering the Wahhabist clerical establishment, fuelling the ultra-conservative Islamic fundamentalism for which Saudi Arabia has since become infamous.

MBS seeks to restore the Kingdom to ‘a moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world’. This implies dramatic social reform. Indeed, the religious police have been stripped of their powers of arrest, restrictions on entertainment are being quietly lifted, and in September, Saudi women were permitted to independently acquire a driver’s license. These measures are admittedly slight, but nevertheless represent movement in a laudable direction.

Thomas Friedman has recently heralded MBS’s policy platform as the beginning of an Arab Spring from above. Other have expressed similar sentiments. However, the MBS agenda has more commonly been met with varying degrees of scepticism. He has been variously labelled an upstart, a hothead and a populist. The Saudi Aramco listing has been derided as ‘a mess’, big question marks hang over the viability of the Neom project, and real progress for women can never be made without dismantling Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system. Moreover, MBS has not hesitated to arrest the odd activist, and has few qualms with the occasional purchase of a 550 million euro superyacht. For good or ill, the path MBS has charted into the 21st century modernity is much less Vaclav Havel than it is Lee Kuan Yew.

Cold wars in hot places

The main caveat on the reformer’s scorecard is a tremendously confrontational foreign policy. Against the backdrop of an escalating regional cold war with Iran, MBS has committed a series of costly errors. First, as newly appointed defence minister, in March 2015 he coordinated a military intervention into Yemen to push Iranian-backed Houthi militias out of Sana’a. Two years later, history has rhymed, and the war devolved into an expensive, strategic quagmire, accompanied by protracted humanitarian catastrophe. Indeed, on the evening of 4 November, the Saudis intercepted an Iranian-made missile fired at Riyadh by the Houthis.

Second, in June of this year, MBS organised a regional blockade of neighbouring Qatar. The move was catalysed by a clandestine hostage deal between Doha and Shiite militias in southern Iraq, but conditioned by broader amities between Doha and Tehran. Among other things, Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest natural gas field. Six months later, Qatar remains unbent, undermining the integrity of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Third, as the 4 November purge was unfolding, MBS was also forcing Saad Hariri to resign as Lebanon’s prime minister. Hariri is a dual citizen whose political influence in Beirut is drawn from the profits of a Riyadh based construction firm, Saudi Oger. His Future Movement has functioned as the Saudi check on the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah in Lebanese politics since 2009, but for whatever cloak-and-dagger reasons, Riyadh decided it was time to intercede. With Hariri effectively detained, the Saudis announced that Lebanon had declared war on the Kingdom, but the strange display of sabre rattling achieved little. Hariri has returned to Beirut and suspended his resignation.

The aggregate effect of these ventures has been to alienate allies, and exacerbate already extremely high levels of latent regional instability, without producing any concomitant strategic effect in pursuit of Saudi national interest. With the additional challenges posed by economic recession and political turmoil, Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institute has been blunt: ‘a perfect storm is gathering around the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’. The ambitious prospects of Vision 2030 will prove little consolation to anyone if MBS pushes the region into general war, or perhaps worse, internal collapse.

John Goldie is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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